Monday Oct 02, 2023

Building Back: Habitat for Humanity hammers home safety, prepares for post-pandemic work.

Serina Gaston on a recently built porch in Allison Hill.

They are building their way back.

After a year of silenced backhoes, Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Harrisburg Area has a new executive director and a retooled commitment to home renovation.

As part of a global network that spans 70 countries and all 50 states, the nonprofit has become known for teams of volunteers in T-shirts and tool belts framing new houses, scaling scaffolding and raising walls in massive speed-builds. But here at home in Harrisburg, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a lengthy construction shutdown and a shift in focus to home repairs.

Habitat hopes new home construction, paused in 2020 and 2021, will resume in 2022, according to Executive Director Serina Gaston, who assumed the reins in April.

This year, Habitat has bolstered its critical home repair program, improving existing homes with ongoing maintenance issues: leaky roofs, windows and doors; decaying porches and wobbly railings; broken bathrooms and dilapidated kitchens. Many of their jobs involve installing ramps and adding handrails to steps and showers.

Gaston noted that, every year, one in three adults over the age of 65 falls, often causing injury and even death. Their “Safe at Home” program repairs homes for seniors and adults with disabilities, with accessibility and safety as a focus.

Much of Habitat’s funding comes from individual donations, grants, and Managed Care Organizations such as Gateway Health Plan, which recently donated $60,000, earmarked for the homebound, those with disabilities and seniors.

In addition to home-building and repair, Habitat hosts a quarterly financial literacy workshop, and, of course, operates the Habitat ReStore, a used goods store that accepts small and large donations of new or gently used furniture, housewares, appliances, building materials and more.


Health Equity

A desire to make a home safer and healthier is built into Gaston’s DNA. She said that health care has been her lifelong passion, and safe, stable shelter is one of the foundations of good health.

“I have a heart for helping people,” she said.

That emphasis on food insecurity and healthier living began in her childhood in Elkins Park in Montgomery County. She has lived in central Pennsylvania for 24 years, after moving here to join her husband, a Steelton native. They met when they both were students at West Chester University.

Before coming to Habitat, Gaston worked as executive director of the Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Network, where she educated low- to moderate-income families about the building blocks to health—the importance of eating a balanced diet and the dangers of obesity and diabetes.

She also helped create the Pennsylvania VeggieBook app and focused on improving the social determinants of health. In addition, she worked at the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers and the state Department of Health and currently serves on the Pennsylvania United Way board, the state’s Office of Health Equity Advisory Committee and the Pennsylvania Chapter’s Society of Public Health Educators.

“My passion is health equity, and I believe that having a safe and decent place to live impacts your health,” Gaston said. “When we look at the social determinants of health, we can’t overlook having a safe place to live.”


Making Inroads

In the critical home repair program, the nonprofit partners with homeowners for internal and external renovations and repairs.

To qualify, applicants must be up-to-date on their property taxes and mortgage and have an income below 80 percent of the Dauphin County median family income.

For a family of four, that means income must fall below $67,900 or $54,350 for a two-person household.

If a resident qualifies, a construction team will go out and look at the project. Acting as both construction manager and coordinator, they will take pictures, talk to the homeowner and tap volunteers. If it’s a bigger job, like a roof, they may contract out the work, Gaston said.

There is no cost to the homeowner if they qualify.

“That is part of our mission,” Gaston said. “We want everyone to be able to live in a safe environment.”

The Etzweiler family was one beneficiary of the Critical Home Repair Program. They recently wrote to Gaston and her team:

“Thank you for the difference you have made. Through your help, we are getting closer to our goal of putting siding on our home, which will boost our confidence and self-esteem! Thank you for the windows you replaced, the bathroom floor and ceiling fan, the newer stove and hood with fan, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and all the electrical work that was done to improve our home situation. “

Whether in Harrisburg or Halifax, tough economic times have darkened the doorsteps of both rural and urban America, Gaston said.

They are making inroads. From 2006 to 2021, the nonprofit has completed 199 home repair projects and counting, prioritizing safety, energy-efficiency and code compliance.

Crystal Brown, a former board member of the nonprofit Tri-County Housing Development Corp. and once head of the Brethren Housing Association, applauds Gaston and the work of Habitat. Tri-County partnered with Habitat to do a three-house building blitz in 2018 along Swatara Street.

She also lauded Gaston for her commitment to housing equity, safety and fairness.

“She is a phenomenal woman and leader,” Brown said.

For more information about Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Harrisburg Area, visit or call 717-545-7299.

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Building Back: Habitat for Humanity hammers home safety, prepares for post-pandemic work.

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